The Second Reich 1900-1914

The Constitution

In January 1871, Wilhelm I was proclaimed Emperor (Kaiser) of a new German state.

Germany is born out of war - most recent victory came against French army at the Battle of Sedan (Sept 1870), fought by number of German states in alliance. The Prussians lead the army of the North German Confederation, formed in 1867. The NGC was defined by a constitution in which the individual states kept their own governments but military matters were controlled by the King of Prussia. There was a central law-making body with limited powers. Victory against the French leads to unification with Southern states, and constitution adopted is a refinement of the NGC's.

The main aim of the author of the constitution - first Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck - is to preserve the power of the elite.

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A Federal State

A federal state is made up of individual states that have control over certain aspects of internal affairs, but also refer to a central state.

The new German Reich had twenty-five states split into four kingdoms - Prussia, Bavaria, Saxony, and Württemberg. The state also had control of Alsace-Lorraine, which had been seized from France and was to be ruled by a governor on behalf of all states.

States retained their own governments and had different constitutions of varying liberality. Responsibility for education, police, justice and health care - broadly considered as 'domestic affairs' - fell under state control rather than the federal government.

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The Kaiser

The Kaiser was always to be the Prussian king, reinforcing his dominant position. He held full control over foreign and diplomatic policy, and in times of war was to be commander in chief of the armed forces for all states. He could appoint and dismiss the Chancellor and had the power to dissolve the Reichstag.

It was the Kaiser's responsibility to publish and oversee the implementation of federal law, and to act as the 'guardian of the constitution'. Because of this, the personality of the Kaiser was of great importance.

Wilhelm I was seen as a highly competent ruler, succeeded by son Frederick, and then grandson Wilhelm II. Wilhelm II believed that it was the Kaiser's responsibility to rule and held great contempt for democracy and the Reichstag. 'There is only one man in charge of the Reich and I will not tolerate another'. He was also seen by many as a poor decision maker with a limited attention span, who did not work hard. He thought highly of the military and turned to them when seeking advice.

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The Chancellor

The Chancellor was directly responsible to the Kaiser. He was in charge of the appointment and dismissal of the state secretaries, and acted as Minister-President of Prussia. He had the power to ignore resolutions passed by the Reichstag.

The success of the Chancellor depended in part on his political ability, but largely on others - the composition of the Reichstag, and the character and relationship with the Kaiser. Caprivi (1890-1894) and Hohenloe (1894-1900) found it difficult to make political headway due to poor relationships with the Kaiser.

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The Bundesrat (& Prussian Voting System)

The Bundesrat was the upper house of the federal parliament, consisting of 58 members nominated by the states' assemblies. It was created by Bismarck as a possible barrier to radical legislation - the Bundesrat could veto a legislation if 14 or more members voted against a bill.

Prussia held 17 of the 58 seats in the Bundesrat, thus ensuring that no legislation could be passed without the complete consent of the Prussian Chamber of Deputies.

The electorate for this was divided by a 'three class franchise', which meant that voters were classified into one of three bands, based on the tax they paid. The votes of those who paid more tax counted more than those who paid less. However, 92% of the electorate could be counted as the lowest category. The result of this system was that Prussia's representatives were always dominated by Conservatives.

Example: in the 1908 election in Prussia, 418,000 votes became 212 Conservative seats, where 600,000 votes became just 6 Social Democrat seats.

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The Reichstag

The lower house of the federal parliament, with influence over financial affairs and the banking system. The Reichstag was elected on a system of universal male suffrage over the age of 25. To ensure that only a certain class of person could stand, Bismarck ensured that members were not paid. The military nor the Chancellor were accountable to the Reichstag.

The Reichstag's most significant power was its control over the defence budget, which became the most significant government expenditure. Bismarck recognised the potential political lever this gave the Reichstag and in 1874 he persuaded them to vote through the Septennial Act, which saw that they could only vote on the military budget once every seven years. This was later changed to every five years in 1893. The Reichstag could also pass an annual budget - a power again reduced by Bismarck, who switched to protectionism in 1879, bringing the federal government increased income and financial independence from the Reichstag.

Although the Kaiser could dissolve the Reichstag, they could not be dismissed indefinitely, and held the right to hold immediate elections after dissolution. They had limited legislative power though and were mainly there to debate and accept or reject legislation presented to them.

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The Army

Bismarck deliberately did not mention the army much in the constitution as he did not want to tie its hands by defining its role. The army was only directly accountable to the Kaiser.

The Kaiser appointed the Military Cabinet, made up of senior military figures. These figures advised and chose the General Staff, who in turn organised all military affairs. The War Minister was a member of the General Staff, accountable only to the Kaiser and the Military Cabinet. The army swore an oath of allegiance to the Kaiser and not to the state.

The army had the right to declare martial law. Positions in elite regiments were mainly Prussian nobility, Junkers. Just around 44% of officers were actually professional soldiers. There were few officers in the army with a respect for democracy.

The army can be seen as a 'state within a state'. It ran its own affairs with little interference from the Kaiser.

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The Bureaucracy

The role of the bureaucracy - civil servants - was not defined within the constitution. Individuals had varying degrees of input. For example, Friedrich von Holstein, who acted as the Kaiser's Chief Adviser on Foreign Affairs from 1890 to 1906, had a considerable impact on policy decisions.

In summary, the political structure was not clear, with various conflicting power bases, and was dominated by the conservative elites. Prussian dominance was widely established, with huge power to veto.

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Political Parties

The introduction of universal male suffrage meant that mass political parties flourished, and limits on the powers of the Reichstag actually led to the creation of more parties as representation was sought. Main political parties from 1890 to 1914:

  • Conservatives - Represented Junkers and those with landed interests, particularly in Prussia. They supported the kaiser and were in favour of a nationalist foreign policy.
  • Free Conservatives - Represented commercial, industrial and wealthy professional classes. Similar views to above, strong supporters of Bismarck and protectionism (business tariffs).
  • National Liberals - Represented industrial middle class and Protestants. Nationalist but encouraged a liberal constitution. Supported Bismarck's 'Kulturkampf' (attack on the Catholic church). Would ally with conservative parties.
  • Liberal Progressives - Represented middle classes. In favour of democracy.
  • Centre Party - Represented Catholics, mainly based in south. Also had support from non-socalist working class and lower middle class interests. Opposed 'Kulturkampf', anti-Prussia, and feared socialism.
  • Social Democratic Party (SPD) - Represented working classes after Bismarck's Anti-Socialist Laws lapsed in 1890. Views were split from a view of pro-revolution versus reformists.
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German Industrial Growth

Industries of the first Industrial Revolution were dominated by Britain, but by 1914 Germany had become the economic powerhouse of continental Europe.

  • Steel - In 1879, the Thomas-Gilchrist process made possible the use of phosphoric ores in the manufacture of steel. These were abundant in new territory of AL and German firms, such as Krupp of Essen, increased production rapidly. Only one GB firm in 1900 had annual capacity to produce over 300,000 tons, whereas in Germany, there were 10 such firms. This fuelled expansion of other industries such as armaments and railways.
  • Chemicals - German chemicals industry stimulated by demand for explosives for the military and dyes from textile manufacturers. Large investment in research and training also contributed - 58,000 full time students in Germany, just 9,000 in Britain. German company, BASF had worldwide monopoly over artificial dyes by 1900. Uniforms of British troops were made with German dye. BASF had a workforce of 6300 workers and 233 research chemists in pharmaceuticals. Film company AGFA produced a million metres of film a year by 1908.
  • Other Industries - Rudolf Diesel creates oil-based engine in 1897, and Gottlieb Daimler perfects high speed petrol engine in 1886. Germany dominates in electricity industry, with around half of Europe's electrical business being undertaken by German companies in 1914.
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Rapid industry growth led to population boom and change in structure of German society. Mass migration from rural to urban life leads to rapid expansion of towns and cities. Downsides: overcrowding, poor sanitary conditions and lack of clean water leads to cholera outbreak. No complacency: city authorities in badly-affected Hamburg build a new sewage system, filtering plant for drinking water and a waste incinerator. Better hygiene and medecine improves rates of infant mortality. Building of tramways means that people can live in suburbs and commute cheaply. Trolley buses are popular after 1901.

Wages in the urban workforce increase after 1896 as wages increase more than prices. The proportion of taxpayers in Prussia as earning under 900 marks a year falls from 75% to 52%.

Numbers of industrial workers doubles from 1882-1907, homelessness becomes an issue. Perhaps 1 in 3 workers every year from 1900-1914 experience unemployment. However, the unemployed come largely from the unskilled working class. Increase in the lower middle class 'white collar workers' to 3.3 million by 1907.

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Fortunes of Germany's agriculture fluctuated. Bismarck's Tariff Law of 1879 protects German farmers - Junkers benefit from high rye prices, but peasantry are also protected with barley, oat and wheat tariffs. Rapid increase in the domestic population creates significant extra demand, leading to growth in prices. Improvement in chemical industry provides new phosphate or nitrate based feriliser, increasing sugar beet yield. Industrial production creates new threshing machines (found on 374,000 holdings in 1882, and 1,436,000 holdings by 1907. German farming becomes more efficient and less labour intensive.

However, refrigerated ships made possible the importation of American meat, which was cheaper than German. It became harder to make large estates pay, increasing debt and leading to more estates being bought and sold from 1896-1912 than ever before. Significant migration leads to a drop in agricultural workers, causing landlords to recruit foreign labour, mainly from Poland.

There was a contradiction between economic modernisation and lack of political reform and restrictions of democracy. Rising unemployment and rising prices sees workers and strikers clash in the streets, mainly in the Ruhr.

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Socialist Movement

Anti-Socialist Laws were introduced in 1878 and lapsed in 1890. They banned socialist groups, meetings and publications, and were upheld by police surveillance. The effect of industralialisation was the mass growth of the socialist movement, with the AS laws serving only to increase enthusiasm for political action. There were revolutionary and radical elements of the SPD.

On the eve of the war, around 2.5 million German workers were members of trade unions, and 400,000 of them went on strike at some point in 1913 for better working conditions. In 1910, the SPD was the largest socialist political party in Europe, with 720,000 members. In the 1912 election, the SPD become the strongest party in the Reichstag.

In 1891, under the leadership of August Bebel, the SPD commits to a Marxist programme. The party rejected collaboration with 'bourgeois parties' and believed that revolution was inevitable, but would work legally to achieve worker ownership of industry. By 1900, most members instead agreed with the 'revisionist' ideas of Eduard Bernstein, who argued that there was not a crisis of capitalism, that socialism should be achieved through gradual and legal means, and that the SPD should collaborate with other parties. He is denounced by those on the left of the party (Luxemburg) at the Lübeck Conference in 1901. The party leadership steers for a middle ground, focused more on reformism after 1907. The elites still perceive as revolutionary.

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Pressure Groups

Focused on single issues but highlighted the tensions and divisions in Germany, and could be very influential.

  • The German Colonial League - Founded in 1882, concerned with the acquisition of German colonies. Played a part in ruling the Empire, ex. took control of German West South Africa in 1884.
  • The Pan German League - Founded in 1890, committed to acquisition of colonies also, but further interested in German dominance of Europe. Strong support from the political establishment, mostly National Liberals.
  • The Navy League - Founded in 1898, became highly popular, with membership of around 1 million. Much success in promoting naval expansion.
  • The Central Association of German Industrialists - Created in 1886 to protect industrial interests, and from 1878 promoted tariff system. In the 1912 election, the organisation funded 120 candidates from conservative and liberal parties, costing 1 million marks. Most powerful pressure group in Germany.
  • The Agrarian League - Founded in 1893 to protect agrarian interests. Junker-led but popular with peasantry, gaining 1/3 million members by 1914. Pushed for protection and agriculture subsidies.
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Political Developments

The main aim of German Chancellors was to protect the position of the ruling elites. Their three biggest challenges were:

  • Aggressive foreign policy - many Germans wished for a more aggressive foreign policy, desiring more territory and power in Europe
  • The demand for constitutional reform - Liberals sought constitutional reform and a strengthening of the power of the Reichstag. Bismarck used war and conquest to split the more nationalist and patriotic liberals from those who prioritised reform.
  • The demand for social reform - Socialists demanded social reform. In 1878, Bismarck persuaded the Reichstag to pass the Anti-Socialist Laws. In 1890, the Reichstag, with the Kaiser's backing, refused to renew the legislation and it was dropped.
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Foreign Minister and Chancellor von Bülow

Bernhard von Bülow served as Foreign Minister from 1897 to 1900 and as Chancellor from 1900 to 1909. His three main strategies:

  • Sammlungspolitik - Politics of concentration. Aimed to build an alliance of conservatives and liberals to create a broad front against the threat of socialism. Aimed to achieve this through protectionism and nationalistic policy.
  • Weltpolitik - World politics. Building up of German armed forces, and hopes of expansionism. With the assistance of Secretary to the Navy, Alfred von Tirpitz, he aimed to develop the Navy too. Bülow quote: 'only a successful foreign policy can help to reconcile, pacify, rally, unite'.
  • Flottenpolitik - Floating (naval) politics. Integral to the success of Weltpolitik, Bülow aimed to create a navy to rival Britain's - unrealistic as in 1896, the Royal Navy had 33 battleships, GN had six. Tirpitz's 'risk strategy' was gung-ho, and justified with the notion of protecting colonies. First Navy Law (1898). Movement has great support from Naval League. Second Naval Law (1900) proposes the building of 38 battleships in next 20 years. Provides leap in production of steel, pleasing industrialists and NL. Third Naval Law (1906) responds to GB's HMS Dreadnought and adds six battle cruisers to plans and widens Kiel canal to allow passage to North Sea.
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Von Bülow's interests lay primarily in foreign policy, but Interior Minister Count Arthur von Posadowsky attempted to placate liberals and socialists with reforms.

  • The Old Age and Invalidity Law (Jun 1899) - Increases old age pensions, extends compulsory insurance to new groups, accident insure extends to new occupations in 1900.
  • Tariff Law (Dec 1902) - Restores Caprivi's exprired treatures, introduces a higher duty on imported agricultural prices (answering demands of Agrarian League), resulting in higher food prices. 1903 elections sees shift towards SDs who oppose the new tariffs.
  • Sickness Insurance Law (Apr 1903) - Ammended to give longer and more generous help to workers in ill health. Doubles to 26 weeks.
  • Child Labour Laws (1908) - Restricts hours of factory work for young people and children; no children under 13 to be in employment, a six-hour day for children aged 13-14, a ten-hour day for those aged 14-16.
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The Problem With Weltpolitik

There were few opportunities for the kind of global expansion demanded by supporters of Weltpolitik. Though the Colonial League placed great pressure, opportunities after 1900 to claim land were limited as most countries in Africa had been colonised within the previous 30 years.

Approval in 1899 of the German-built Constantinople-to-Konia railways through to Baghdad ignite imperialist dreams of extending influence into the Near and Middle East. Largely unfounded desires though.

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The Herero Uprising

The SPD stood against imperialist adventure when there was great need for social reform at home. Until 1906, von Bülow's political policies were able to maintain the broad alliance of conservative, liberal and centre parties. This is called the Blue-Black Bloc (Blue meaning Conservatives, Black for clerical Catholic robes).

In January 1904, the Herero people (indigenous to German South West Africa) revolt against their colonial repressors. They are defeated at the Battle of Waterberg in Aug 1904. They were then subjected to genocide through execution, life in concentration camps and forced migration into the Namib desert. Population was estimated at 80,000 prior to the uprising, but stands at just 15,000 in 1911.

Though the Centre Party were cautious about challenging von Bülow's government, many were outraged by the reports from Catholic missionaries in the colonies and mentions from Matthias Erzberger. The affair highlights lack of parliamentary accountability for colonies and the army, and the need for greater financial control - the rebellions had cost 456 million marks, equivalent to building 12 dreadnoughts.

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The Hottentot Election

On 26 May 1906, the Centre Party join the SPD in voting down gov plans for a new railway in South West Africa, compensation for settler losses and elevation of the status of the Colonial Department of the Foreign Office. The Reichstag is subsequently dissolved. The so-called 'Hottentot' election of 1907 was fought on the issue of nationalism.

Von Bülow is supported by the Pan-German League, and uses scare tactics to convince the German voters that a Red-Black victory (SPD and Centre Party) would be bad.

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The Daily Telegraph Affair

Von Bülow's government was undermined by a large financial defecit, exactly as the CP had complained in 1906. Increased government spending meant the government had to raise 380 million marks. Von Bülow suggests a property tax or extension of the inheritance tax. This causes the break-up of the Blue-Black Bloc with conservatives and CP opposing this.

In Oct 1908, the Kaiser gives an interview to a British newspaper, suggesting he wished for a close alliance with Britain. The Reichstag objects, stating that the Kaiser made foreign policy without consultation. The Kaiser apologises, and blames von Bülow for not censoring him. The Reichstag drops the issue.

Bülow's chancellorship ends in summer 1909 when his budget is formall defeated. In reality, his demise stemmed from the fact that he no longer had the confidence of the Kaiser.

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Bethmann-Hollweg & Domestic Policy

Bülow's successor was Theobold Bethmann-Hollweg, who whilst being an able administrator, was fairly forgettable in domestic policy.

  • He attempts to reform the warped Prussian voting system in 1910, but when faced with Conservative opposition, drops the issue.
  • To please the Conservatives, he begins seizing estates in the East, belonging to Poles, to redistribute to the German peasantry.
  • In 1911, the Imperial Insurance Code was introduced, which essentially just consolidated all previous similar legislations, amending and extending their provisions. Certain groups of white collar workers were now insuranced against sickness, old age, and death by a coinciding law.
  • He introduced a constitution to Alsace-Lorraine in 1911 to try and integrate the province with the rest of Germany.
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1912 Election

The SPD polls 4,250,000 votes, becoming the largest party in the Reichstag, with 110 deputies. This drastic increase in fortunes comes partly from new alliance with the Progressive LIberals. Philip Schiedemann becomes Vice-President of the Reichstag. However, the SPD had problems in the fact that, besides their current allies, very few other parties would consider an alliance, making it hard in the future to maintain such numbers.

In 1913, the SPD surprises by voting in favour of an Army Bill, which would increase the size of the armed forces by 136,000 soldiers but at a cost of a billion marks. The SPD were prepared to support this as it would gain them favour - they did not want to be labelled as unpatriotic (especially as war seemed to be on the horizon) and it was agreed that the money was to be raised from a direct property tax.

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The Zabern Affair 1

Won as a spoil of war, AL, or 'Reichsland Elsass Lothringen', was ruled by an Imperial governor, known as the Statthalter. By the Traty of Frankfurt (Oct 1872), citizens had the choice of emigrating or taking German nationality. Around 200,000 French speakers flee, but of those that remain, 10% are still French speaking. Government tolerates the use of French language in parts where such people are the majority. In 1911, B-H's government aims to promote closer assimilation by granting a constitution; two-chamber legislature, regional autonomy, a flag and national anthem.

In November 1913, a young German officer, Second Lieutenant von Forstner makes derogatory remarks about locals which are printed in the press. The governor of AL, Karl von Wedel tries to persuade the army to transfer Forstner. Local garrison commander, Colonel von Reuter refuses. Forstner is jeered at in the streets, causing Reuter to imprison some of the townspeople, causing a state of seige. Kaiser is unmoved by Wedel's appeals, believing the downplayed version of events from local military commander-in-chief, General von Diemling, and instead orders reinforcements to the town. A case against Forstner is dismissed as self defence - an attack on a disabled shoemaker, despite the fact that the man was alone and unarmed, whilst the officer was surrounded by five colleagues.

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The Zabern Affair 2

Throughout the affair, the Kaiser remained on a hunting trip and refused to see von Wedel. As far as he was concerned, the incident was a military affair, and he forebade Bethmann-Hollweg to inform the Reichstag, and sent a senior military officer, Major-General Kühne to Zabern to investigate. Any protests in the AL region are diffused by the military.

On the 3rd and 4th December, B-H faced questions and cricisms from members of the Reichstag, particularly those from the Progressive Liberals, the Centre Party, and the SPD. B-H and the War Minister simply defend the military, angering the Reichstag who incite a vote of no confidence against the Chancellor, with 293 votes to 54.

The Zabern Affair highlighted the limits to the power of the Reichstag. B-H ignores the vote of no confidence - he is directly responsible only to the Kaiser, not the Reichstag. Von Wedel resigns as Governor, replaced by someone more reactionary. Political parties show themselves to be too timid - SPD Schiedemann demands the Chancellor's resignation but is ignored by most other politicians. In January 1914, the Reichstag establishes a commission to discuss the boundaries of military and civilian authority - this disbands after just a month.

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Constitutional Change?

Despite the emergence of more socialist groups like the SPD and the growing influence of the Reichstag, in 1914, Germany has seen no great move towards parliamentary democracy. Central points of the constitution remained unreformed, and there are three main reasons for this:

  • Constituency Boundaries - These remained unformed throughout the period; for example, due to the large urban population, an SPD member tended to represent many more constituents than a Conservative or Liberal party member. In this way, elections were not won on the popular vote.
  • The Kaiser - No political party was prepared to challenge the power of the monarchy, or risk being branded as unpatriotic. In 1907, even one of the SPD leaders, Gustav Noske preaches loyalty of the SPD to the 'Fatherland'.
  • Parties as Interest Groups - Parties looked after the interests of those who supported them, making collaboration between parties difficult.
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